Friday, June 20, 2008

60 Years Ago Today The Ed Sullivan Show Debuted

It was sixty years ago today that a show called Toast of the Town debuted. If that name does not sound familiar to you, then I am sure that the name by which it was eventually became known will: The Ed Sullivan Show.

In many respects Ed Sullivan was wholly unique as the host of a variety show. This was not simply because of his own peculiar delivery, but he was not himself an entertainer. While most other hosts of variety shows were either comedians or singers, Sullivan was a journalist. Ed Sullivan woreked for a variety of papers in swift succession: The Port Chester Daily Item, The Hartford Post, The New York Evening Mail, The New York World, The New York Morning Telegraph, The Philadephia Ledger,and The World and Bulletin. He eventually became sports editor at The New York Graphic. It was in 1931 that the Graphic's theatre columnist Walter Winchell left for The New York Mirror. Sullivan took over for Winchell as the paper's new entertainment columnist. Unfortunately, The New York Graphic would close a year later. Fortunately, Ed Sullivan was not without a job for long. He found a home at The New York Daily News, for which he wrote until his death in 1974. As early as 1931 and 1932 Ed Sullivan was a part of the world of broadcasting. He did radio interview shows at both NBC and CBS. In fact, it was Ed Sullivan who introduced the legendary Jack Benny when he made his radio debut on WABC in 1932. From 1936 to 1952 he would have his very own radio show on CBS, Ed Sullivan Entertains.

By 1948 Ed Sullivan was a nationally known figure and well respected in the field of entertainment reporting. His influence and power rivalled, perhaps even surpassed that of legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Having had a long relationship with CBS and known for his uncanny ability to spot talent, it was only natural that CBS producer Worthington Miner would hire Sullivan to host the network's first variety show, Toast of the Town. The basis behind the show was simple. It would bring the principles of vaudeville to the television screen; that is, on each show a variety of performers would appear, everything from comedians to acrobats to singers. Oddly enough, the going was not easy for Toast of the Town in the beginning. Although popular, its original sponsor, Emerson Radio, had serious doubts about the show and dropped its sponsorship. Fortunately, it soon found a new sponsor in the form of Lincoln-Mercury, who would advertise on the show until the end of its run.

That first show was much like those that would follow. It featured the popular comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, dancer Kathryn Lee, pianist Eugene List, composers Rogers and Hammerstein, and a group of singing New York firemen. Throughout its run, the series would always feature such a variety of acts. While its format would remain the same for its twenty three years on the air, its name would not. Although officially named Toast of the Town, the show was known colloquially as The Ed Sullivan Show from the beginning. In 1955 it was officially renamed The Ed Sullivan Show. Eventually CBS Studio 50 from which the show was broadcast was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theatre in 1967, the name by which it has been known ever since (and which Late Night with David Letterman calls home).

Throughout the many years Ed Sullivan hosted some of the most famous acts in show business. His was not the first programme on which Elvis Presley appeared, but it was certainly the most famous. Initially Sullivan did not want to book Elvis on the show, believing that he was not suitable for family viewing. At the time, however, Toast of the Town was locked in a battle for the ratings with The Steve Allen Show. Allen had booked Elvis on his show, so to keep up in the ratings, Sullivan naturally had to change his mind and allow him on this show. Ed Sullivan did not introduce Elvis on his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, having been in a car accident. He was instead introduced by the show's guest host, actor Charles Laughton. While Sullivan did allow Elvis to perform on the show and even devoted considerable time to him, on the singer's third performance he did insist that Elvis be shot only from the waist up so his well known gyrations would not be seen throughout the United States. In the end Ed Sullivan would declare Elvis to be "...a real decent, fine boy,"

More famous even than Elvis's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show are the appearances of The Beatles on the show. Contrary to popular belief, The Ed Sullivan Show was not the first American on which The Beatles had appeared. "She Loves You" appeared on the Rate a Record segment of American Bandstand in September of 1963. The Beatles themselves would appear in a news story on The Huntley/Brinkley Report (AKA The NBC Evening News) on November 18, 1963. On December 7, 1963, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite featured another news story on the Fab Four. A clip of The Beatles performing "She Loves You" appeared on The Jack Paar Show on January 3rd, 1964. While the United States had been exposed to The Beatles well before their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was Ed Sullivan who would give the band their first extended appearances on American television. Sullivan had decided to sign The Beatles when he was at Heathrow Airport in London late in 1963 and witnessed the crowds of screaming fans waiting for The Beatles. The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for three consecutive broadcasts, for which they were paid $4000 per appearance. Their first appearance on February 7, 1964 drew an estimated 73 million viewers, at the time the largest audience for a single broadcast of a TV show ever. On that first appearance the band performed "All My Loving," "Till There Was You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Following their famous February 1964 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, they would appear once more on September 12, 1965. While they never performed live on the show again, many of their promotional films would be shown on the programme.

Over the years Ed Sullivan would host several other famous individuals and performers on his show, including Mickey Mantle, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, The Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others. Sullivan also regularly brought performances from Broadway's current show to American homes, among them Camelot, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and Oliver (in fact, future Monkees Davy Jones, who played the Artful Dodger in the play, appeared with the rest of the cast the same night that The Beatles debuted on the show). Ed Sullivan also had his favourite acts, who would appear time and time again on the show. Among these was the puppet mouse Topo Gigio, with whom Sullivan would often interact, and comedian and mime Senor Wences. At a time when many African Americans were excluded from many shows, Ed Sullivan frequently had African Americans as guests.

Of course, Ed Sullivan would also have his share of controversy. When Bo Diddley appeared on the programme, he wanted the singer to perform "Sixteen Tons." Instead, Diddley went ahead and performed "Bo Diddley." Sullivan banned Diddley from the show afterwards. On October 18, 1964, during his routine comic Jackie Mason noted that Sullvian was off stage giving him finger signals. Mason then began joking about "the finger" and thumbed his nose at Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sullivan believed that Mason had given him The Finger (the obscene gesture in which the middle finger is extended and pointed upward). Sullivan then terminated Mason's contract for any further appearances on the show. It is clear from the video tape that Mason never gave Sullivan The Finger and Sullivan would eventually apologise to the comic.

Such controversies would become more common during the Sixties when various folk artists and rock bands appeared on the show. CBS feared that Bob Dylan's song "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" would be too controversial for broadcasts and asked that he not perform it. Dylan told CBS that if he couldn't perform the song, then he would rather not perform on the show. He then promptly left. Dylan was never invited to the show again. CBS's Standards and Practices demanded that The Doors change the lyrics to their hit "Light My Fire" on the show. Jim Morrison went ahead and sung the lyrics as they are. Despite their popularity, The Doors never appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show again. The Byrds faced no censorship when they made their single appearance on the show in 1965, although reportedly David Crosby got into an argument with the show's director. They were never invited back. Oddly enough, despite their rough and tumble reputation, The Rolling Stones complied with Sullivan's request that they change the lyrics of their song "Let's Spend the Night Together" to "Let's Spend Some Time Together" when they performed on January 15, 1967. Despite this, Mick Jagger noticeably rolled his eyes every time he got to the chorus of the song!

Of course, at the centre of it all was Ed Sullivan himself. He was stiff. He was not particularly comfortable in front of the cameras. He given to odd vocalisms (such as his oft imitated "...really big shew tonight..." And at times he could even make flubs on air. He once forgot the name of the group The Supremes and simply called them "the girls." Once when he spoke about the fight against tuberculosis, he accidentally said, "Good night and help stamp out TV." He referred to British comedy team Morecambe and Wise as Morrie, Combie and Wise. If anything else, Sullivan's very awkwardness in front of the camera only endeared him to Americans even more.

The Ed Sullivan Show ultimately lasted twenty three years. When it was cancelled in 1971, it was part of the "Rural Purge" that saw CBS cancel any shows who viewers either lived in rural areas or whom the network simply felt were too old. Cancelled late in the season and not giving Sullivan enough time to plan a farewell show, Sullivan was angered by the cancellation. Despite this, he would return to CBS for several specials until his death of oesophageal cancer in 1974.

The impact of The Ed Sullivan Show is impossible to measure. It was central to American society for nearly its entire run, and was capable of actually making a performer's career. References to the programme are frequent in movies. It was mentioned in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, as well as the Broadway musical Bye, Bye Birdie and the 1963 movie based on it. It is also mentioned in Marty, Days of Wine and Roses, The Apartment, The King of Comedy, and many others. For many biographical films and period pieces, the show has even been recreated, including The Buddy Holly Story, The Doors, Down with Love, and others.

I grew up with The Ed Sullivan Show, watching it for the first eight years of my life. Every Sunday night my parents would tune in to the show, part of a ritual that included The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza. I then have many fond memories of the show, many including Topo Gigio and Senor Wences. When collections of clips of the old shows were syndicated under the name The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, I watched it regularly. Even after all these years I must admit that I miss Ed Sullivan. His show may well have been "vaudeo," as early critics labelled it, but it gave television something it badly needed and perhaps still needs. It was a variety show that truly featured a variety of acts, everything from the latest rock performers to performing animals.


Bobby D. said...

Censorship was a sad part of the show, but I recall seeing it before it went off the air and enjoying the acrobats. As young as I was, when Ed tucked the little mouse puppet into bed, I was thinking WHAT? (and tried to erase the image from my mind) But he was no doubt trying to soften his image by interacting weeth the leetle eetalian mouse. He was a funny old coot, and lovable in his own way. Sorry we never got to see Bob Dylan on his show. Censorship sux.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I think you have to look at the censorship in light of the times. As late as 1967 one still couldn't say "Hell" on NBC, nor could a toilet be heard flushing on CBS. Let's face it, this was the era when Pete Seegar was banned on all three networks, even ABC's show Hootenany (which was dedicated to folk music).

Jim Marquis said...

I also have a lot of fond memories of that show. I remember seeing George Carlin on there in a suit before he grew his hair long and took his humor in a more hip direction.

dennis said...
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